Jeopardy! Misspeller a Sore Loser?

How he —and his parents — should have handled the "emanciptation" flap.

It was Kid’s Week on Jeopardy! last week. Thomas Hurley, an eighth grader from Connecticut came in second place after misspelling the word “emancipation” during the Final Jeopardy round. Had he not spelled it incorrectly as “emanciptation,” he would have still come in second as he was well behind the leader and his take-home winnings would have been the same:  $2,000. Two grand is a lot of money, right? And it sure is a lot of money to a kid in middle school. But little Tommy felt he was robbed and his parents agreed, creating a controversy that made news and garnered a lot of sympathy for the sore loser.

Where do I begin? Let’s start with Jeopardy! and Alex Trebek, who took some heat for being mean-spirited and not giving the kid a break. When the answer was revealed, Alex said that the answer was “badly misspelled” then followed up with “That’s unfortunate. The judges are ruling against you.”

Remember, it’s the judges who make the final decision. Little Tommy signed a waiver agreeing that the judges’ decision is final. I’m pretty sure all the words on the waiver were spelled correctly, so he shouldn’t have been surprised. It’s not Alex’s job to judge the answer, and his comment was appropriate. Here’s why:

“The unwritten rule on Jeopardy! has always been that your final answer doesn’t have to be spelled right, but it has to be the same phonetically as the right answer.”

So says Ken Jennings, the record holder for the longest winning streak on Jeopardy! In 2004, he won 74 games and took home $3,172,700, so he knows a bit about the game. “ If he’d spelled it ‘Emansipation’ or even ‘Immancipation’, he probably would have been okay.” Alex did his job and followed the rules.

Okay, speaking of rules, let’s talk about the kid. He told The News-Times of Danbury that “I was pretty upset that I was cheated out of the Final Jeopardy question. It was just a spelling error.”

Cheated? What, it was just a little bit wrong? It was just a little mistake?

Little Tommy probably doesn’t understand the black-and-white concept of right and wrong, and why should he? Parents don’t raise their children to understand life and all its ups and downs, but rather, to find a way around what’s fair and unfair in this world to their own betterment.

That brings us to the parents. What a shame that, instead of allowing this incident to be a life lesson about losing gracefully and accepting the consequences of one’s own mistakes, they fueled the “injustice” of it all. “It’s generated a little bit of controversy,” says mom Suzanne Hurley, “He was a little stunned by it. He felt embarrassed. It was hard to watch.”

Wouldn’t a healthier approach have been for Mom to tell Tommy that he should be proud of his second-place win? That he did a great job and, although you might disagree, the judges’ decision is final? Or maybe she could have used the incident to point out how important spelling and grammar still are, and that even a little mistake is still a mistake, something to be corrected and be the positive impetus for learning and improvement.

Parenting is nothing more than preparing a child to function well in the world, and the greatest preparation for life’s pitfalls is to teach your child to handle them with grace, self-assurance and confidence. Good luck, Tommy.